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Between You and Me

Confessions of a Comma Queen
Mary Norris
W.W.Norton & Company


From the Introduction

Let's get one thing straight right from the beginning: I didn't set out to be a comma queen. The first job I ever had, the summer I was fifteen, was checking feet at a public pool in Cleveland. I was a "key girl"—"Key personnel" was the job title on my pay stub (I made seventy-five dollars a week). I never knew what that was supposed to mean. I was not in charge of any keys, and my position was by no means crucial to the operation of the pool, although I did clean the bathrooms.

Everyone had to follow an elaborate ritual before getting into the pool: tuck your hair into a hideous bathing cap (if you were a girl), shower, wade through a footbath spiked with disinfectant that tinted your feet orange, and stand in line to have your toes checked. This took place at a special wooden bench, like those things that shoe salesmen use, except that instead of a miniature sliding board and a size stick for the customer's foot it had a stick with a foot-shaped platform on top. The prospective swimmer put one foot at a time on the platform and, leaning forward, used his fingers to spread out his toes so that the foot checker could make sure he didn't have athlete's foot. Only then could he pass into the pool. I have never heard of foot checkers in any city besides Cleveland, where their presence was taken for granted, and can only speculate that at one time there was an outbreak of athlete's foot on the shores of Lake Erie, and a crusading public health official, determined to stamp it out, had these benches knocked together and hired people to sit at them, checking feet.

I am not particularly nostalgic about my foot-checking days. Nor do I wish to revisit my time at the Cleveland Costume Company, where I worked after graduation. I had gone to Douglass College, the women's college of Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, and I had returned ignominiously to the nest because I couldn't think of anything better to do. The costume company was fun for a while: renting props to local TV shows, putting together costumes for summer-stock productions of Restoration drama. On my first day, a young black woman, Yvonne, was setting Santa beards in rollers so that they would be curly by Christmas. An older black woman worked in the kitchen, starching and ironing the clown ruffs and nuns' wimples. She changed from street shoes into bedroom slippers when she got to work, and said things like "My dogs is killin' me." The boss was Mrs. Pizzino ("P as in Peter, /, double Z as in zebra, /, N, O," she would say, spelling her last name out over the phone), and under her tutelage I learned to repair big papier-mache animal heads and not to paint the panther's eyes blue.